Saturday, 30 July 2011

Time to swap the SWOT?

Sometimes it seems that almost everyone has done a SWOT (strengths, opportunities, opportunities and threats) analysis at some point in their business careers. I have no means of measuring this, but I would estimate that SWOT analysis is probably the most common technique used by managers seeking to be (or at least appearing to be) a strategic leader.

The scenario can, however, sometimes go like this: a horseshoe group gathers round a flip chart and launches into brainstorming the four headings in a random order. There is usually a discussion along the lines of “is that an opportunity or a threat?” to which someone else will say “well it could be both – let’s put it in both sections”. And then someone else will say “yes, but, isn’t that one of our weaknesses too?” to which the reply will be “put it there as well”. And then there will be a further ‘off piste’ (i.e. not brainstorming) discussion about that weakness about how it has been around for so long and every time we do one of these SWOT discussions it comes up and nothing changes and how life is ultimately so depressing and why are we bothering with this SWOT brainstorming anyway and can we talk about something else...?

Have you been in one of those discussions?

One of the reasons, I suspect, why the approach has been often misused is that the original source has been lost. Albert Humphrey of Stanford University is often credited with inventing the term (see but others suggest that there is “no documented history of SWOT – that is the answer!” ( Whatever is the case, the net and literature are full of ‘how to’ methods for conducting a SWOT analysis ( and for example).

I happen to think that because SWOT has been badly used for so long by so many people that we are in danger of overlooking just how useful a SWOT analysis can be. Perhaps it is time to straighten out the screwdriver that you once used to open a can of paint – and use this tool well. At risk of creating yet another ‘how to’ blog on the use of SWOT analysis, here are some guidelines that should help you to make the most of this tool:
  • Recognise that a good SWOT analysis requires careful deliberation and is not something to squeeze in as a good ‘filler’ before the real highlight of the away day (i.e. lunch). If you want to make the most of a SWOT analysis, start with being in the right frame of mind and give it enough time. 
  • Make sure you have the best possible mix of people present: people with insight, concern and authority in varying mixtures usually works well. 
  • Define your scope carefully at the beginning. Describe and delineate the project / team / organisation (p/t/o) about which you are conducting the SWOT so that everyone knows what is ‘internal’ and what is ‘external’. Also remind people of the objectives of the project / team / organisation so that all are starting with the same song sheet. 
  • Define your terms rigorously at the beginning as well. Here are mine: 
    • an opportunity is an external factor or force that is or has the potential to assist or enable the p/t/o achieve its objectives
    • a threat is an external factor or force that is or has the potential to hinder or disable the p/t/o achieve its objectives
    • a weakness is an internal feature of the p/t/o that is either inhibiting the p/t/o from making the most of the external opportunities or mitigating the external threats
    • a strength is an internal feature of the p/t/o that is either allowing the p/t/o to make the most of the external opportunities or to mitigate the external threats 
  • Note that strengths and weaknesses are defined relative to the external opportunities and threats. The implication of this is in a SWOT analysis, is that you start ‘out there’ with opportunities and threats. Then you identify the strengths and weaknesses in this context. Something might be strength one year and bit a weakness the next because the context has changed. This point, in my view, is critical in understanding how to make the most of SWOT analyses. This is why some people call them TOWS analyses (although I prefer OTSW as jars more and is therefore remembered more, perhaps). 
  • Good analysis starts with a good brainstorm, in my experience. This means allowing people, with all of the above in mind, to freewheel, connect, say whatever comes into their heads, not critique or discuss, and get out a large volume of ideas. (I think sticky notelets can be useful as you can move them around later.) 
  • One shape on which to place the ideas, which emphasises the points above is this: 
  • Using the ‘STEEPLE’ mnemonic may help with stimulating ideas for the outer ring (social / sociological, technical / technological, economic, environmental, political / Political, legal and ethical) and McKinsey’s 7S model to consider the inner one (strategy, structure, systems, skills, style, staff & shared values) 
If these guidelines are new to you, please try them out and let me know how they work.

What other guidelines would you suggest (or delete)?

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Investment opportunity! Online learning how to ride a bike.

In line with the huge and growing interest in e-learning because of its cost effectiveness and overall brilliance, I have decided to create a course on ‘how to ride a bike, online’. I am looking for co-investors in this enterprise.

I expect a lot of interest from parents of young children, who just do not have the time these days to teach their offspring how to ride a bike ‘in the real world’. I also know there must be a many adults out there who need to brush up on their bike riding skills but do not currently have a bike to use and/or the time to use it. Indeed, I will shortly be commissioning research to show that ‘online biking’ will enable people to ‘shed the pounds’ in advance of their summer holiday. (Ironically, of course, I hope to gain a few pounds of the other kind, from the creation of this e-learning course.)

Would you like to make an investment?

The course will be available 24 hours a day and will feature all the knowledge you need: the history of biking around the world, how bikes work, their mechanics, where they need to be lubricated and how to fix a puncture. This knowledge will be the essential foundation for the core skill of ‘riding’. This will be demonstrated in a series of streamed videos, diagrams and sophisticated power point presentations: all designed to show you how to start, stop, go round corners and fall off safely. There will also be iPhone & Android apps which will employ the inbuilt motion sensors so that you can learn how to balance really, really well. There will be advanced courses for people who wish to ride tandems, go downhill really fast, or how to get off and walk up hills briskly and proudly.

This is the investment of a lifetime!

So please email me if you wish to be part of this new initiative and I will let you know about the forthcoming webinars where you can hear me ‘free wheel’ about the massive investment opportunity that this is.

Other courses to come include ‘how to lead people, really well’, ‘how to run the economy as if it were a housekeeping budget’ and ‘how to make shed loads of money out of running care homes for older people’. All these courses will be delivered online at a fraction of the cost of ‘real life’ courses that require you to interact with other people and learn 'real' skills.

Friday, 22 July 2011

As a leader: are you painter or a sculptor?

Near where I live there is delightful wooded walk into town. About half way there is a green man sculpted into a tree stump, calmly staring at you as you walk on by. It struck me the other day that often sculptors have to work in reverse. In other words they make their art by what they leave behind rather than what they add (like a painter).

And I got to thinking whether good leadership is a little like that. Many leaders spend their time coming up with new visions, new procedures and new ways to manage change (etc). Their art is expressed by what they add...

But perhaps other leaders (better leaders?) express their art by focusing on what they can take away or what obstacles they can remove. In other words the art is allowed to emerge rather than being applied like paint. I have heard sculptors talk about how the forms they create are already in the stone they work with – and it is their job to unwrap these hidden shapes.

So as a leader – are you painter or a sculptor? Or are you both – in which case when do you choose to paint and when do you elect to sculpt instead?

Friday, 15 July 2011

Where is your plan?

One police station I visited had their 10 point plan displayed on all the notice boards – straightforward, no padding and clearly sketched out for the year. 

I have been to other places and when you ask for the plan – it is ‘somewhere’ in the filing cabinet.

But in other places, I have known leaders dig out dog eared copies from their briefcases

Where is you current plan?

It's not too late!

I am still looking for contributors to the book I am compiling.

‘Everyday Leadership Inspiration’ is the working title of a book I am putting together and I wonder if you would like to contribute?

It will be a book written by everyday leaders for everyday leaders. The idea is that each leader describes what book (or film, or poem, or story from their life, or quote... etc) has inspired their leadership and then (in about 300 – 500 words) to write about why and how it does.

A brief giving more detail is available here. If you would like to contribute please send it to me at

Thank you.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Positive action on creating ‘SME friendly’ procurement processes

In the process of moving towards a Government procurement programme that is more open to bids from small and medium sized private companies (and other entities); it is likely that existing procedures will need some radical overhaul. Much of this has been underway with the project to design leaner commissioning and procurement processes.

However, there is likely to still be a pervasive and resilient culture that naturally favours buying products and services from larger corporations. As the PM stated on 11/2/11, there is still a culture of ‘nobody gets sacked for buying an IBM’. This culture is probably still so embedded as to mean that many of those involved in Government procurement will not easily make the transition to an ‘SME friendly’ culture. See here for further information: & my blog about the meeting in February

Whilst competition law, the need for VfM and the Civil Service Code mean that there must be no positive discrimination in favour of SME supply, there can perhaps be positive action.

This document sets out some questions designed to challenge those involved in Government procurement to manage tendering processes in ways that positively highlight the value and importance of SME provision.

Ten questions for procurement executives, advisers, officers and specialists to address in order to assure an ‘SME friendly’ procurement process and which has no implicit bias in favour of larger organisation bidders:

  1. Within our overall commissioning strategy & plan or this specific procurement exercise, have we ‘chunked’ our requirements into optimally scoped portions such that suppliers of all sizes would be able to bid? 
  2. Within the bidding process, have we made available documentation & information from past / existing contracts (including materials produced by suppliers that we now own the IPR to plus our detailed evaluations of past delivery) to ensure that all bidders (which may include past / existing suppliers) are competing on a level playing field? 
  3. In our efforts to ascertain whether bidders have the necessary skills & track record of performance that we require, have we a process for establishing whether the claimed experience still exists within the supplier organisations (and not merely part of a company back catalogue, the agents of which have since left the company, for example)? 
  4. Have we specified our requirements in such a way as to allow bidders to propose innovative solutions which may look (very) different to the delivery model we had in mind (or are used to) but which may well nonetheless achieve the outcomes we are seeking with greater efficiency, effectiveness and economy? 
  5. Have we created a set of communication mechanisms between us and potential bidders that blends and balances the need for transparency with the need for a carefully controlled confidential channel so that some bidders can request to explore certain innovative ideas which (if revealed to all) would significantly damage their advantage? 
  6. If we are using a framework or PQQ process (and acknowledging that such methods are now seen as counter to the direction of Ministerial intentions and Government policy), are we confident that these processes do not have any inbuilt bias towards larger organisations through (e.g.) requiring voluminous (and often largely irrelevant) policies on sustainability, health & safety or international supplier QA? 
  7. Have we requested details of financial or economic standing that are either disproportionate to the actual risk associated with that which we are procuring or indeed plainly irrelevant, and which may yield a real or psychological bias in favour of larger organisations (asking for ‘audited accounts’ for instance)? 
  8. Within the process leading up to the publication of the tender documents or PQQ, have we ensured that the voice of the end user / customer (such as the battlefield soldier or the older person needing support) has been woven irrevocably into the very fabric of our statement of requirements so that we can be sure that bidders will shape their proposals around what these final users need and not what they (or indeed any other intermediaries) ‘think’ should be delivered? 
  9. Whilst keeping the whole commissioning and procurements processes clean and lean, have we built in an opportunity for an independent “SME advocate” to challenge and scrutinise us so that we can be sure that the overall tender procedure contains no hidden biases in favour of larger organisations? 
  10. Have we put in place an evaluation framework so that we can independently verify that the best bidder was eventually chosen from amongst all those who showed an initial interest and (possibly, though this would be hard to achieve) those who might have bid but for their being generally put off by the scope of Government procurement, without being tautologically attached to believing that our bidding processes always identifies the best bid? 
This is meant to be a live document. There is nothing magical about there being 10 questions. You may wish to add an eleventh or more. You may also wish to suggest a deletion or tweak to one of the questions above. Indeed, you may wish to challenge this whole approach.

If you have any contributions, please either email me ( or post a comment below. I would be interested in the dialogue. Thank you